1999: An industrial Chinese province. Zhang Lili (Fan Liao) and his partner are investigating the death of a man whose dismembered body has been found in the coal processing plant where he worked. The investigation climaxes with an impressively filmed one shot shoot-out in a neon-lit gambling arcade. The result is a gory mess; Zhang is injured and one of his colleagues is among the fatalities. After the traumatic episode, as Zhang drives away from the hospital, Black Coal,Thin Ice director Yi’nan Diao cleverly establishes the passage of time via a seamless transition of the scene through a tunnel and the film jumps to 2004. The camera takes us out the other side of the tunnel and we meet Zhang sprawled drunkenly in the snow, his motorbike stolen, a rickety old scooter left in its place. It’s clear he has been badly affected by the events we witnessed in the film’s prologue. Zhang, now divorced works as a security guard and lives life in an alcoholic haze. A chance encounter with his ex-partner brings his interest back to the old case which has been reopened due to suspicions that the dead man’s wife, Wu (Gwei Lun Mei) has been linked to subsequent deaths. Zhang becomes obsessed with this mysterious widow and despite warnings from his ex-partner finds himself embroiled in his own unofficial investigations.”
Diao’s accomplishment as a writer and director is demonstrated by the successful manner in which he has translated the ingredients of classic noir into modern Chinese culture, and he blends these ingredients with subtly and grace. Recurring imagery, such as a pair of ice-skates and a leather jacket, form clues to a seemingly impenetrable mystery.
The low-key performance from Fan Liao as the down-and-out ex-cop is spot on, and there is a reasonable performance from the Lun Mei Gwei as the widowed laundry worker at the heart of the mystery, though there is something lacking in her character that holds her back from living up to classic “femme fatale”. The real star of Black Coal, Thin Ice is Jingsong Dong’s cinematography and his treatment of the dreary, industrial, snow-covered landscape. The bleak run down streets encased in frost and fog provide a perfect backdrop to this stark murder mystery. In practically every scene, the drab setting is punctuated by a contrasting glow of neon: the flashing lights of a nightclub reflected in a snowy wilderness, bright yellow lamps illuminating a bridge, a green neon hue seeping into a dimly lit bedroom.
One of the most intense and atmospheric scenes takes place at an outdoor ice rink in the middle of nowhere. Zhang pursues the stony-faced Wu on skates, his awkward inexperienced technique contrasting with her graceful movements. In the background Emile Waldteufel’s enchanting ‘Skaters Waltz’ is piped out of overhead speakers.This piece of music, and a Chinese pop tune which Zhang dances to in a surreal ballroom scene, are the rare instances of a soundtrack in the film. The sparse style also extends to the film’s action; information is slowly fed to us on a need-to-know basis. Intense sex scenes are shot in such a way that we see nothing of the action yet we are in no doubt as to what is happening, the atmosphere raw and palpable. Interestingly one of these scenes takes place in the passenger car of a Ferris wheel, paying a quirky homage to the seminal noir classic The Third Man.
The visual touches are so strikingly beautiful that the actual plot seems to have suffered somewhat as a consequence. There is nothing wrong with a slow burner, but Diao’s film glides along at a pace so slow that it’s almost static, with the risk that viewers may get distracted by its style and forgot the whole point of the story. In keeping with the typical noir formula, this film is peppered with red herrings, but in this case the twists, when revealed, are predictable and anticlimactic.
Despite this small criticism Black Coal, Thin Ice is a masterstroke in filmmaking. Each scene, without exception, is crafted beautifully with slavish attention to detail. A deserved winner of the Golden Bear award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Diao’s film is likely to have wider appeal as an arthouse film as opposed to a classic genre piece.